Al-Qaeda growing, but less focused on US, study finds
Anna Mulrine, CSM, Jul 22 2013
WASHINGTON – Al-Qaeda not only remains a threat to the US, but its capabilities and scope are expanding, a new analysis from a respected think tank has concluded. Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation, the study’s author, argues:
There has been a net expansion in the number and geographic scope of al-Qaeda affiliates and allies over the past decade, indicating that al-Qaeda and its brand are far from defeated.
Why, after a decade of wars, the longest in USAia’s history, is the terrorist organization that the US military set out to defeat still active and growing? And does it really have an impact on the everyday safety of most USAians? Jones argued in little-noted testimony last week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee:
There are several reasons for the growth of al-Qaida. One is the Arab uprisings, which have weakened regimes across North Africa and the Middle East, creating an opportunity for al-Qaeda affiliates and allies to secure a foothold. This expansion, along with the weakness of central al-Qaeda in Pakistan, has created a more diffuse and decentralized movement. As a result, most of al-Qaeda’s local affiliates largely run their operations autonomously, though they still communicate with core leadership in Pakistan and may seek strategic advice. The good news is that within this disparate movement, most al-Qaeda affiliates and allies are not actively plotting attacks against the US homeland. Contrary to some arguments, most al-Qaeda leaders are not interested in establishing a global caliphate and do not seek to overthrow regimes in much of the world. Instead, they tend to have rather more parochial goals. They want to establish Islamic emirates in specific countries or regions, though they may be agnostic about a broader violent Jihad. The goal for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, for example, is to overthrow regimes in North Africa, particularly Algeria, and replace them with an Islamic government. In many cases, France, rather than the US, is the most significant foreign enemy. Captured al-Qaeda documents show that both Osama bin Laden and the current al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, primarily emphasized guerrilla campaigns to overthrow “apostate” governments in the Middle East. Indeed, approximately 98% of al-Qaeda attacks between 1998 and 2011 were part of an insurgency where operatives tried to overthrow a local government or secede from it and were not in the West.
That said, al-Qaeda affiliates do pose some threat to US citizens overseas. The RAND analysis notes that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies were involved in the 2012 attack that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, for example. There also have been a growing contingent of foreign fighters, perhaps several thousand according to Jones, traveling to Syria to fight. Many of these volunteers are coming from Europe. So what should US officials do about these expanding networks? Jones says:
Volunteering for war is the principal stepping stone for individual involvement in more extreme forms of militancy. When Muslims in the West radicalize, they usually do not plot attacks in their home country right away, but travel to a war zone first. In areas where al-Qaeda does not pose a significant threat to the homeland, the US government should support local countries and allies as they take the lead, much like the US did in supporting France’s counter-terrorism efforts in Mali in 2013. When they do pose a direct threat, the key is implementing a light footprint strategy that focuses on covert intelligence, law enforcement, and Special Operations Forces to conduct precision targeting of al-Qaeda and its financial logistical support networks. In Afghanistan, for example, the US should withdraw most conventional forces, relying primarily on clandestine operatives as it has done in Colombia, the Philippines, and other counter-insurgencies. Most of the terrorists involved in serious homeland plots post-9/11 were motivated by large US conventional military deployments overseas. The US should also engage more robustly in psychological warfare. Since the US Information Agency was disbanded in 1999, there is no government department responsible for taking the lead role in countering al-Qaeda ideology. The CIA is involved in some clandestine activity, but most senior officials do not view undermining al-Qaeda ideology as its core mission. Ultimately it is the president and the national security staff’s responsibility to appoint a lead agency and hold it responsible. The bottom line is that US policymakers should view the al Qaeda threat as a decades-long struggle, like the Cold War.